That was fascinating news out of Baltimore the other day when the Orioles announced an important discovery. They discovered according to their own survey, that Baltimore is a shameful baseball town compared to Washington fans' continued fervor for the game that abandoned them six years ago.
Among the truths uncovered by the Orioles' survey was that only 61 per cent of last season's attendance was provided by the Baltimore natives, a recipe for bankruptcy unless there is support from outside.
A total of 10.1 per cent of the Orioles' attendance came from the Washington area, the rest from Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the Orioles' survey reported. It is the 10-plus per cent from Washington that now interests the Orioles front office, which announced it would like to promote more interest from Washington by marketing procedures.
That 10.1 per cent is also a figure that ought to fetch the renewed interest of the pooh-bahs of baseball, who have long been tinkering with the notion that Washington now deserves a major league franchise. The figures can be translated into a huge salute to this city's persistent interest in the game that deserted it in 1971 in that contemptible, league-approved pullout of the Senators to Arlington, Tex.
That 10.1 per cent also can be viewed in other teams.It means that more than 100,000 Washington fans were eager to endure the long, 45-mile shlep to Baltimore to see the game played: to cope with the antiquated stadium, with the inadequate parking, and then root for semistrangers. They were outnumbered only six to one by native Baltimore fans who had their stadium next door and a team to call their own, and who had been subject to endless radio and television blasts and saturation coverage in their local newspapers.
Understable is the Orioles' intended "thrust toward Washington" by means of promotional and marketing campaigns that would tap more of the fans here. Jerold C. Hoffberger, owner of the Orioles, when apprised of the attendance from the Washington area, said simply, "I wish it were 35 per cent."
Hoffberger repeatedly has declared he would permit no American League team to move into Washington and can invoke his territorial rights to that end. He has no authority to foil a National League move to Washington, but has indicated he would attempt it, somehow, and keep the Washington Baltimore territory for his very own.
"I will not let the other owners do to me indirectly what they cannot do directly," Hoffberger has said, indicating he will raise a fuss if an NL team tries to move into Washington. Hoffberger is deeper in lawyers than most club owners.
A few months ago, Hoffberger announced what would be his solution to the Washington Baltimore situation. "I would agree to switch the Orioles to the National League and let an Al franchise move into Washington" he said.
For Hoffberger, that would be an instant move into the best of both worlds. The Orioles, for all the pennants and the division titles they have won, and their constant contention in the pennant races, have been barely skinning by financially. In the more popular NL they could survive handsomely.
There is one salient index in the record books that may define the comparative enthusiasms of Baltimore and Washington fans. The Orilles' biggest season attendance was 11 years ago when they drew 1.203 366 fans. That year they won the pennant. In 1948, the Senators drew their own high of 1,027,216. They finished fourth.
As long as he owns the Orioles as an Al club, Hoffberger does not want to compete with either an NL nor an AL team in Washington. He could abide an AL team in Washington if his Orioles were in the National League.The American League owners would not resist very forcibly a move of the Orioles into the NL inasmuch as they are not great boon financially to visiting AL clubs and would be viewed as good riddance.
But the National League likes of Dodger owner Walter O'Malley, who counts dollars along with his vote would tell Hoffberger to take his feeble baseball business elsewhere than the NL. O'Malley doesn't need a survey to tell him that Baltimore would not be a shining addition to the National League.
Among the goodies Hoffberger has planned for Washington fans besides the 45-mile trudge to Baltimore is, if things work out, his plan to play 11 of the Orioles' "home" games in Washington each season. He could not hope that this would effectively shut off the continuing demands for major league baseball, a sop to those that might be content without a team of their own, in addition to bringing in more cash for the Orioles.
Hoffberger could say he is thus paying tribute to his loyal Washington fans. He also could be saying, in a roundabout way, that you Baltimore fans don't deserve a full, whole schedule of games because actually you are not supporting my team as enthusiastically as my Washington friends.
Then, maybe, there would be need for a survey as to what Baltimore fans think of Hoffberger.
Because Hoffberger has said he would fight the entry of the NL into Washington, and any re-establishment now of an AL team here, it is high irony that Washington is effected by Hoffberger's whim. But for the indulgence of the late Clark Griffith in 1954 there would not have been major league baseball in Baltimore.
Washington owner Griffith waved his territorial rights to permit the St. Louis Browns to move to Baltimore at a time when he commanded the Al votes to stop it. Only four were needed, counting his. He had the support of his old friend Connie Mack in Philadelphia, his son-in-law, Joe Cronin, who cast the Boston vote, and Spike Briggs, Detroit owner to prevent a move. But he relented in return for a $50,000 yearly lift in his television revenues from the National Brewery, then owned by Hoffberger, with the added stipulation that the Orioles' tickets prices be no lower than those of the Senators.
In approving the move of the Browns to Baltimore, the AL owners made a stipulation: Bill Veeck must first sell the team to Baltimore interest.
Veeck, who often had antagonized other owners with his bizarre showmanship and criticism of them, finally sold his 79 per cent interest in the Browns for $2,472.500. Veeck said he knew he was finished in St. Louis the moment wealthy August Busch bought the Cardinals. "Who could compete with Gussie Busch's money?"
Now 23 years later, Baltimore is surveying Washington as a fan market to be tapped by the Orioles. Come and see major league baseball. "We look at Washington as a development area," said Hank Peters, the Orioles' general manager.
A development area? How good of Baltimore, which was a minor league town for more than five decades while Washington fans for 71 years were privy to major league ball in their own back yard.